What about B?

I got a question from a reader (thank you for asking, made me very happy and inspired a new post!)
Do you think that if you make a few mistakes during an entrance exam in your B language you will be turned away? 
My reader writes: I’m confused because I was under the impression that a B language is something you already have “perfect command” of, according to AIIC. Yet language enhancement classes is something that is often talked about in interpreting circles? That indicates to me that schools do accept students with B languages that are “less than perfect.” 

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Language enhancement


When you start an interpreting course one of the first things you that may strike you is how the language you thought you knew just fades away. Interpreting is an extremely complex exercise and your language skills have to be extremely solid. Whether we grew up bilingually or learnt languages later, most of us who are (or were) accepted into an interpreting program probably has the equivalent to a C2 level (mother tongue or near-native level according to the Council of Europe). But let’s face it, when we embark on our first consecutive – it feels like we just learnt our first words in that language.

So, although you are a skilled linguist, you will have to work on enhancing your language skills, and probably also the elusive concept of ‘culture générale’. But how do you do it? Since we’re not C3PO we cannot just add another hard drive or software, we just have to do it the good old way. And you probably already know it, but here’s a repetition.

First of all, listen, read, eat and sleep your language. You may have to do this both with your foreign language and your mother tongue. Unfortunately, there is now way around it – you need to listen to radio, read newspapers, listen to the news, both in your mother tongue and in your foreign language and with all the technical aid today this is not too hard. Log on to iTunes and see which pods suit you. I like NPR (the American National Public Radio), BBC, TV5 Monde, RFI (Radio France Internationale) just to mention a few. Many newspapers also have their own pod casts. And if you subscribe to different news apps you will get short flashes in you mobile.

When I brain stormed with my students someone also said “set your mobile, Facebook or web browser to your foreign language”. Translation is a good exercise too, when you translate shorter, idiomatic texts you get a feeling for expressions, idioms, prepositions and so forth. Attention to prepositions cannot be stressed enough, prepositions are probably one of the most difficult areas of language and preposition use has an unfortunate tendency to break down in stressful situations like interpreting. If you’re unsure about language in use, corpora is a good thing, in many multilingual text corpora, current texts are collected in order to compare language in use. Another way of mastering language in use as professor Harris pointed out in the comments is to learn poems or song lyrics by heart. As dull as it may seem it is a wonderful way of learning expressions and idiomatic language use.

Finally, and unfortunately, there is probably no way round vocabulary swotting. Flash cards is a good strategy here and one of my students mentioned Anki. I have not tried it – in my time we used cardboard and felt pen, but time changes :-). For my part I also joined an amateur theater group in English in order to immerse myself as much as I could without leaving Sweden. There are many other opportunities like that via Internet now, and thanks to different local groups you may also find opportunities to meet people IRL.

What’s your best language enhancement strategy? And do spare me of the pillow method, I’m far from sure it’s the best method.

Update: Just to be very clear – an interpreting course will enhance your language skills, but it is NOT a language course. All the basic language learning, including living and working abroad, will have to be done before the course. Otherwise there is little chance you will survive until your last exam.

Of course I am science, too

Have you seen the twitter hashtag #IamScience? An initiative started by Kevin Zelnio and with the aim to share stories of how scientists became what they are. Kevin published his post end of January, and since then researchers have shared their, in most cases, less than straight path to science. Kevin Storified #IamScience here and stories are also shared on Tumblr. And Mindy Weisberger’s collected quotes in a video.

Although, my path to science was by no means as rough as some of the stories that have been shared, it was far from straight either. I have touched upon parts of my background in earlier blog posts, but here I will share my way from high school to PhD scholarship a short story of some 20 years. This post is mostly for my students, who usually believe I had a career as straight as a highway in the US :-).
My senior year in high school was very tough. I completely lost my drive, and just couldn’t force myself to go to school. Unfortunately, I had moved out from my parents’ that year, so not much of parental control either. My grades started declining, and by the time I reached graduation my grades were mediocre. Luckily for me since I came from being a good student, at least I got my diploma. Today, my children laugh so hard at the fact that their mother had an (equivalent to) E in English. They also laugh hard at pictures from this period since I was experimenting a lot and my hair changed between colours such as blue, red, Bordeaux and black.

I did graduate after all, but I swore I would never go back into a classroom ever again. I started working, first various unskilled jobs, and eventually with horses. The only thing I wanted to do at that time was working with horses, and I took a job as a groom. My horse career was not brilliant, but I was happy doing what I did. Personal life was worse though, my father passed away, and I ended up in an abusive relationship which cost me most of my friends and almost the relationship with my mother. On top of that, I wasted the savings my parents had entrusted me and ended up indebted.

After four rather dark years, I took a course in logging with horses. I spent a year learning horse carriage driving and logging, and I finally left the guy. But horses is a tough business there are thousands of talented and skilled young people (girls) around, who will work for nothing. Although, I had managed to get a few really nice (though short-term) jobs, the truth started to dawn on me – since I was neither rich enough nor talented enough – I would most likely spend the better part of my youth working very hard with other people’s horses without ever being able to own one myself. And I still had my debts to pay.

Usually, in everybody’s life there is always someone special, a person that really made a difference. In my case, I’m happy to still have him by my side. When I met my husband, I was as deep down as somebody can be without using drugs or being locked up. I still have no idea what he found in the selfish, shallow, big mouthed surface I exposed in order to protect my empty, hurt soul. Luckily he saw behind that. When I met him I was between horse jobs, but worked double shifts to pay my debts, nights as a security guard, days as an office hand. He would listen for hours, but also challenge me: “Was this really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?” With him I figured out that I loved teaching and he reminded me that despite my E in English, I was actually fluent in both English and French, wouldn’t teaching be a good idea? It was really hard to swallow. I had sworn I would never set foot in a classroom, and here I was discussing a career that would put me in a classroom for the rest of my life! I’m not sure I would have done it hadn’t it been for an extended dead line to apply for the teacher training program. Vite fait, bien fait.

I’m not sure when the change took place, probably somewhere in my first, fairly chaotic, year. I was still working two jobs on top of school, and it was not easy to adapt to academia. But somehow I realized I could not get enough of learning. I loved learning new stuff. As I approached the end of the 4-and-a-half years of study, one of my big concerns was to leave university life and look for a job, I was not, as many of my friends (and quite opposite my high school experience) tired of studying. But then another opportunity opened up, I could go on to interpreting school and do a master in conference interpreting. I jumped to that, not that I didn’t want to become a teacher, but because it seemed fun to try something different. After a year of interpreting school and with a Master’s in Interpreting, I had to start working. I started working as an interpreter, but went back to university part time, immediately. At first because my teacher training degree was a Bachelor of Education and I wanted a Bachelor of Arts, and I thought it could be fun to write papers in French and English (yes, I’m serious), later because I wanted to write a Master’s thesis.

Both teacher training and interpreting school went fairly smoothly, but my papers and theses have been another laughing stock in the family. English – two terms instead of one, French – three terms instead of one. Master’s – six (!) terms instead of two. But hey, I have worked and had three children at the same time.

When I met the director of studies to discuss a possible Master’s thesis, she asked me: “Would you be interested in doing a PhD?” I couldn’t even imagine myself doing a PhD, PhD students were those nerds who didn’t have a life and were digging themselves down in something as uninteresting as “The use of “so” in newspaper texts”. I, for my part, was just pursuing something I thought was fun at the moment, but of course the director of studies sow a seed.

And here I am, I’m hopefully soon done with my PhD thesis, I would love to continue researching, I love teaching. I’m not particularly young anymore, but when I look back, I don’t think I would have been as happy and as confident with what I’m doing had I chosen a shorter or more direct path. And of course, I am science too.

What’s my contribution to the GDP?

Monday and Tuesday I participated in the compulsory Theory of Science course. All PhD students at my university have to take the course and produce a paper on a topic related to Theory of Science and their own topic. I like the course and I like Theory of Science. We were discussing the book the “The New Production of Knowledge” by Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow and Peter Scott. The authors claim that there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, the first one is the one going on in the traditional institutions among academics not interdisciplinary and only achievable for a few. The second mode is the one that has moved out of universities with research teams that are interdisciplinary and that also consists of people both with and without academic background. These teams are loosely set together to answer specific questions under a limited period of time.
Personally, I did not like the division into two modes (first of all because the authors made it sound as the OLD used-out mode and the NEW fresh appropriate mode), I would prefer to see it as a continuum, there are research going on at the university, and that research can be both within a single discipline and interdisciplinary, it can have a time limit or it can be very long term. And then there is research going on outside the university in different constellations.
But the most problematic issue for me here is what this tells us about funding. A lot of the important basic research goes on at universities, and most of that research may not be so very “salable” when it comes to getting funding. It’s more attractive to fund a a mode 2 team where you can commission the team to research a particular issue you are interested in (which may be a highly important issue of course such as climate change nowadays) for a set period of time.
I once interpreted Linda Buck (Nobel prize laureate for medicine in 2004), it was a public lecture so I’m not breaking any secrecy here. Her work on the olfactory system was very much unsexy basic research that was hard to get funding for and that didn’t interest many people. She spent many years looking into mouse brains to see how the odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She did not say it, but I guess she more than once got the question: “And what’s the good use of that?”. And then something happened and her research has allowed for the DNA-mapping of the olfactory system and she has discovered how the odour travels into the brain and apparently this can open all sorts of doors for the medicine industry. But what if she had been in a mode 2 team? And after four years of studying mouse brain nothing interesting had come up, no answers ready. Of course I do believe that we need both mode 1 and mode 2 research, my problem is that I do not want research to be done only in mode 2.
I mean honestly, what’s my contribution to the GDP? I do not find cures to diseases, I do not stop the climate change, I do not invent new renewable energy sources, I do not even come up with new economic models to make more money. So where is my right to existence in a research world dominated by market economy? I’m not alone in this dilemma, many researchers within Humanities struggle with the same questions. But nevertheless our science is important science too. We all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us, an understanding of those who came before us and documentation to those who will follow. Our community needs us, so we need to be part of the funding too, even if we are not producing immediate results in short term projects. Rome was not built in a day.

Update Jan 21st: I just noticed that the Overworked Translator had a blog post touching this topic, I like to believe that I’m more of a winner than a whiner, although I admit that this post touches upon whining.

Machine interpreting, will we ever get there?

For an interpreter, just as for a translator it is almost humiliating to suggest that a machine will ever be able to do your job, just as well as you do it. I guess many skilled worker have felt the same during the whole era of industrialization and digitalization. Computer Aided Interpreting is a different thing, it is already here. Bringing your computer and you internet key to the mission in order to use dictionaries or search the internet is a habit for many of my colleagues, both community and conference interpreters. But suggesting that you could actually put a computer in my place and that would be just as good is hard to swallow. Luckily, although many argue the difference, it will take some time before we get there. As Nataly Kelly says in an article in TCWorld: “Unfettered bidirectional speech-to-speech communication is still the Holy Grail in the automation space.”

A recent study made by Milam Aiken et. al. is reported in Translation Journal, an on line journal on translation. They claim that in their test between Korean and English there were a lot of errors but the result was still acceptable. The problem with their report is that they don’t qualify “acceptable”. Acceptable to whom, and does acceptable mean understandable?

The reason I believe that it will take some time to develop this is first of all the problems that machine translation tools has. I don’t deny that they are a very good tool, especially the ones you pay for (haven’t we all had a lot of fun with Google Translate?), but hardly as a human translator, especially when it comes to smaller or rarer languages.

Secondly, the problems with speech recognition software, OK, they are getting a lot better, especially for English, but just think about how difficult it is speaking to a speech recognition software over the phone: “Did you say “too”?”, “No, two”, “I don’t understand, did you mean “not”, and so forth. My own experience of these services is that in the end the computer decides for you and you get information that you do not want.

And finally, a gentleman points out on Proz that: “almost nobody, including most interpreters, really know how human interpretation functions. Thus, until now nobody has thought of modelling into a computer engine and replicate the mental processes applied and the information used by human interpreters (which, by the way, are only half-explored). This a huge task, but POSSIBLE.” I mean that this translator has not read the interpreting studies literature very well, there are not many interpreting researchers around but MANY of them have tried to model the mental process. Actually, the modelling of the mental process is the “shibboleth” of the interpreting studies research. See for instance, Moser-Mercer, Seleskovitch, Gile or Setton on that issue. The problem is that it is, just as the gentleman said, a huge task, but also a very difficult task.

So, I’m sure that people will continue to improve computer software and make wonderful tools for interpreters and translators, but I’m still not convinced that they will completely replace the interpreters.

How to choose your working languages

How many languages do you know and how/why do you know them? Do you recommend to concentrate on one language (other than your first language) or learn more languages which would give more work offers I guess.

I just got this question from a student wishing to pursue studies in interpreting. This is probably the most common question from students. And the answer is not as straightforward as the question (what else?). First of all you need to know your mother tongue very well. It seems obvious, but speaking a language and interpreting into a language are two very different things. When you interpret into a language you need to master all domains, all registers, and all nuances. It is so much more than just speaking your mother tongue or being fluent in a language.

How well you have to master your other languages and how many languages you “need” depend on where you aim to work. Interpreters can be “bi-active”, meaning that you master two languages equally well and work to and from both languages. In that case you have two mother tongues or you are very near native in your foreign language (an A or B-language for interpreters). Bi-active interpreters work for NATO, for courts, as conference interpreters or as community interpreters. It is more or less impossible to be bi-active in more than two languages.

Most interpreters who work for larger institutions such as EU or UN work only into their mother tongue and from at least two, but often three or more languages. The languages you work from are languages you comprehend fully, but which you do not master as mother tongue. In interpreting lingo these languages are called C-languages.

So, you cannot say that its better to focus only on one language or several. It depends on what you would like to focus on. And it also depends on whether you have a second mother tongue or a language in which you are near native. So more languages does not necessarily mean more work offers either. However, a language combination with very high demand in your region will most likely give you more work offers. Also, if you are the only one with two very rare languages you will probably have a stable market.

Personally, I work from English, French and Danish into Swedish. I work to and from English in court but not in conferences. The reason for my language combination is that I only have one first/ A/ mother tongue language and I work mostly for the EU. I am almost near native in English and therefore I work in court to and from English, I have not developed my English into conference use. You can read more about me and my languages here.